Environmental community shifts focus away from Washington with 'think local' strategies
Monday, December 20, 2010; 11:16 PM
As 2010 comes to a close, U.S. environmentalists are engaged in their most profound bout of soul-searching in more than a decade. Their top policy priority - imposing a nationwide cap on carbon emissions - has foundered in the face of competing concerns about jobs. Many of their political allies on both the state and federal level have been ousted. And the Obama administration has just signaled it could retreat on a couple of key air-quality rules.
"Certainly I think we have figured out we need to find a way to really listen harder and connect with people all over America, especially in rural America," said Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund. "I don't think we've done a particularly good job of that."
The change casts a sudden pall over environmentalists' top-down approach.
"The tragedy is that they spent the last 10 years on this and not anything else," said Clean Air Task Force Executive Director Armond Cohen, whose group has pursued an array of alternative strategies aimed at curbing climate change and air pollution.
Now, instead of spending millions of dollars seeking to win over wavering lawmakers on the Hill, green groups are ramping up their operations outside D.C., focusing on public utilities commissions that sign off on new power plants and state ballot initiatives that could potentially funnel hundreds of millions of dollars to conservation efforts.
The Nature Conservancy, for example, successfully championed a ballot initiative in Iowa this fall that will devote a portion of any future sales tax increase to land and water conservation initiatives. According to its president, Mark Tercek, a series of floods helped focus Iowans' attention on the benefits of preventing soil erosion and other problems.
"The average Iowan is not liberal," Tercek said, noting the initiative could generate $150 million a year for conservation. "They're saying through this, 'We need to invest in ecosystems.' "
The Sierra Club, meanwhile, is bolstering its long-standing campaign to block the construction of power plants across the country, assembling a team of 100 full-time employees to focus on the issue in 45 states.
"This is where the environmental movement will make the most progress in the next five years," said Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune.
350.org founder Bill McKibben, who has been trying to foster a global grass-roots movement, wrote in an e-mail he sees it as the only way to overcome traditional opponents who are far better positioned in Washington: "Since we're never going to compete with Exxon in money," he wrote, "we better find another currency, and to me bodies, spirit, creativity are probably our best bet."
This strategic reassessment also has given hope to those working on lower-profile environmental issues, which were largely sidelined during the climate change debate. Vikki Spruill, president of the Ocean Conservancy, noted that the combination of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the fact that oceans have "less partisan baggage" could enhance the prospects for marine conservation next year.